Belfast Telegraph

WikiLeaks and those who should have known better

By Stephen Glover

Two important lessons emerge from last week's mostly predictable WikiLeaks revelations about Nato's war in Afghanistan.

The first is an obvious one we already knew about: no single democratic government can control a transnational website leaking secrets on the internet.

It is no use a general in Whitehall picking up a phone and having a quiet word with an editor he knows from the club, explaining that publication would not be in the national interest.

WikiLeaks and its weird-looking founder, Julian Assange, do not care about the British or any other national interest.

The second lesson is apparently contradictory, and more surprising. For all the nation-dwarfing power of the internet, international whistleblowers such as Mr Assange still need old-fashioned national newspapers — in this case, The Guardian, The New York Times and the German weekly Der Spiegel.

He needed them, partly, to sift and make sense of the 92,000 documents and, more than that, to confer importance on his revelations, to induce the world to take them seriously. In other words, although this has been portrayed as a story about the power of the new media, it is also about the power of the old.

And I can't help wondering whether these three great established publications are as comfortable now as they were a week ago. They shouldn't be.

Of course, secrecy is the enemy of journalism and openness is our friend. I don't even think that anything these newspapers published harmed the national interests of their respective countries.

They were nonetheless associated with an irresponsible, amoral exercise. The most obvious example concerns the names, villages, relatives' names and precise GPS locations of Afghans co-operating with Nato troops, which are among the documents released by WikiLeaks.

Mr Assange says he wants to save lives, though it may be difficult to prove he ever has.

It may turn out to be easier to say that he has been responsible for one or more deaths.

He says he held thousands of documents back, but he cheerfully published information that could literally be lethal. No decent newspaper would do that.

The problem for The Guardian and the other publications is that they were not in charge of this operation. They were necessary to it, but they did not run it.

The new media, which knows no national boundaries, and has no respect for any national interest, needed the old media for credibility.

But the old media did not employ its traditional journalistic standards, which must rest upon moral responsibility — or, rather, it did not force its wild new associate to do so.

Next time, think twice before hunting with Julian Assange.

Belfast Telegraph


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